Tears that Heal   8 comments

Tears stream from many different pools of emotion–some come from sadness, some from fear, others come from joy or gratitude.  As a child, storms thrashed my emotions, but my tears were dammed up by the fear of being mocked as a cry-baby.  My eyes were always dry, even as a seventh-grader when I was hit by a car and knocked thirty feet down a ravine, breaking my leg in three places.  I calmly gave my home number to my friend Nathan, telling him to assure my family that I was okay, and then I asked the emergency responders if they wanted me to crawl up the embankment.

Crying as a boy was always contemptuous, with one religious exception: crying for one’s sinfulness was actually praiseworthy.  So every kind of pain, suffering , and loss was funneled into this one acceptable ocean of sorrow.  For the first half of my life, I cried from this bottomless lake of self-contempt–my failures to be courageous enough or careful enough or disciplined enough.  My relationship with God was anchored by the depth of my own shame, expressed in tearful confessions.  I loved God by hating myself.  We had a very intense and very dysfunctional relationship.

When I stumbled into the truth that God accepts me unconditionally, this swamp of shame began to drain away.  In God’s caring and affirming embrace, I slowly found the safety to acknowledge my own deep pain, especially from my religiously abusive self-reproach.  Grace allowed me to recognize other pools of pain as well, the ache that comes from rejection, loss, loneliness, and other common human sources of suffering.  The God that I thought belittled my pain and scolded my self-absorption actually cared that I hurt.  My emerging theology of grace validated this view, but experiencing this care from others in my life let loose this new reservoir of tears, crying as an expression of pain, vulnerably exposing myself to the compassion of others.

The darkness of life often chokes me.  Sometimes I respond to these feelings by distracting myself, I get on the internet or cook dinner.   At other times I take a more healthy approach,  try to resolve my struggle by reading something spiritual or journaling, but this often does not relieve my sense of confusion, fear, or isolation.  I keep flipping through options, trying to find one that will soften the ache.

This morning I shared with Kimberly how badly I felt.  Kimberly reminded me that my first response is to have compassion for where I am and how I am feeling.  That whole concept is foggy in my mind–what does it mean to be self-compassionate?  I’ve been making grabs at it for a year but it slips through my mental fingers.  Somehow her words seemed to fall into place this morning, and the tears that began to trickle down my cheeks were not tears of pain, but tears of self-compassion for my pain.  It is a new lake of emotions I have tapped into, and I am crying again as I type this.  It is not a feeling of agony, but of soothing and care for my struggling soul, self-empathy.

Some years ago I stopped blaming myself for my own pain, but if instead I focus on “fixing” myself, treating my pain like a project, I objectify myself.  Presence is the most important and first gift of compassion, even to myself, and it cannot be bypassed or shortened without harm, like a comforter who tries to “fix” someone whose spouse has died, “You need a dog!  You need to move in with your son!  You need to get out of the house and do something fun!”  What they need is for me to sit and empathize with their suffering, to feel with them, to join them where they are with compassion.  Grieving is an essential part of healing.  And it takes as long as it takes.

 

 

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Posted August 27, 2019 by janathangrace in Personal

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Breathing Again   3 comments

My spirit opened up last week like a hiker breaking into a wide, sunlit meadow after a steep, shadowed ascent.  Room to breathe, to get my bearings, to feel freedom from the hedged in trail.  I was inspired by the kindness of an author I read and began imagining myself living from such a generous spirit.  I journaled about my new inspiration to speak and live kindness into the world.  As I read back to Kimberly those two pages, I felt the shadows swirling back in.  The inspiration was sucked into the undertow of obligation.  The joy of it turned into duty, a gauge to measure my adequacy.

What had seemed life-giving was now a tick on my to-do list, and I couldn’t restore the magic.  Goading myself to be kind only deepens my legalism, and forced smiles are creepy, not uplifting.  But spotting the problem did not deflate it as usual, so I had to shake off the shackles by backing away from this new prospect.

On Wednesday my therapist led me through an enlightening self-reflection: I was raised to believe that the task is more important than the person, that the one who shirks obligations is of little worth.  When my worth is on the line, duty becomes a crushing weight.  These were not conscious thoughts, but the underlying tint, the blue shade of light by which I see my world.  My subconscious outlook shapes the way I feel about myself and God–in this case, I felt devalued.  Tearfully realizing that, I embraced once again the God of grace, and the dark curtains shrouding my soul were pulled back.

But haven’t I known about this for a long time now?  Why does it feel like a new revelation?  As Kimberly and I drove to the mountains yesterday for a hike, I tried to focus the blur.  After years of personal work, I no longer think my worth depends on fulfilling my duties.  So God was not judging me, but he still needed me to complete the to-do list.  That stuff mattered, mattered a lot, mattered more than me.  His focus on the task devalued me as a person, one who is of great worth apart from anything I do.  “Work before pleasure” was a core family value of ours.  We took care of the work before we took care of ourselves because duty mattered more–studies over sleep, devotions over breakfast, clean-up before rest.  Finish the task at all costs, then we have the right to consider our own needs and pleasures.

This turns truth upside down.  A task has no worth except as it helps us–we are what matters, the object of God’s whole heart.  We do not compete with tasks for his attention.  When I think that God wants to use me for his purposes, seeing me as a means to his goal rather than seeing me as the goal, I lose sight of his love and objectify myself (something God would never do).  Living under the weight of law ruins myself and the good I’m trying to do.

Then, instead of good work flowing from a deep rest in God and a discovery and joy in my gifting and beauty, I ignore my needs and belittle my worth, working against myself to fulfill a task that has now become not only meaningless, but damaging both to me and to the one I hope to bless.  I do little good to others with my forced virtue, while I do serious harm by reinforcing belief in an uncaring God.  Our impact on the world flows from our core beliefs, not from our carefully crafted behavior.

If my singular role is to spread God’s love as demonstrated in Christ, I can only do so by believing it for myself wholeheartedly.  “This is the only work God wants from you: Believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29).  May I rest in that truth more each day.

Posted August 8, 2018 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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My Unstable Spiritual Compass   2 comments

I’ve been out of school for a month, leaning into rest and trying to forget the emotional crosswinds of this past school year that lashed my skiff.  When the storm blew passed, I fell on the deck in relief.  It took a couple of weeks to shake off the built-up stress, followed by two weeks of resisting a truck-load of “shoulds” that clamored to come on board.  “Sorry, my boat’s not ready for that yet.”  It has been surprisingly restful.

From childhood, duty was my slave-master, barking at me to meet its demands by sacrificing myself.  With a harsh and uncaring voice, it claimed to speak for God, but if God cares more about a task than he cares about me, I’m lost.  When that theology nearly killed me, I woke to a God who was full of unending love and grace.  But shame and fear keep playing me, yelling about the dangers of self-compassion.  When stress floods in, I easily fall back to the false safety I learned as a child–the salvation of self-discipline and hard work.  From that view, grace only works as a reward for maximum effort: “God helps those who help themselves.”  It is the American gospel.

As fall semester ramps up, I need to realign myself with the gospel of grace, but it is such a messy process.  At what point is rest overdone, moving from restorative to deadening?  If I push into the straits, will I get free or get stuck? Is it fear or love driving me, or a tangle of both?  Can I ignore the fear or do I need to confront it?   Reorienting from fear to love is slow and messy.  I hate messy.  It feels wrong.

Without clarity, how do I know which way to turn?  Do I just set out and hope for the best?  But that’s how I lose my way–get confused, and end up hurting myself and others–which proves I’m off track.  Or does it?   I stubbornly presume that a good heart leads straight to clarity and comfort.  I keep forgetting that the way of love is rocky, that it uses uncertainty to grow faith and pain to grow blessing.  To run from either is to short-circuit the divine process of grace.  Uncertainty and pain are not the goal of love, but they are evidently the path to reach it in this broken world.  “Now we see through a glass dimly.”  Perhaps that should be my life verse.

 

Posted July 24, 2018 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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The Dark Side of My Brain   Leave a comment

I’ve had a week off from school now and the whirl has subsided.  When school is in session, my life feels like it has direction and meaning, however short-term and contrived.  In some ways getting another degree feels ridiculously arbitrary as a goal, like digging a hole in the ground and knocking a ball into it with a stick, becoming really good at stick-swinging, better than anyone else (though a hole-in-one actually benefits no one).  Of course I hope I can be of benefit to others through counseling, and I hope it can keep us financially in the black even though I will be starting a new career at 60.  At least counseling pays better and is more physically sustainable into old age than pitching 50 pound bags of mulch into people’s trucks at Home Depot.

When I’m no longer pressed by arbitrary class deadlines, the expansiveness that opens up blows emptiness into my soul.  Why am I here?  What meaning does my life have?  How can I make a difference in a world that has sloughed me off like Teflon?  Even wearing an orange apron and pointing at the wasp spray is a distraction from the hollowed out feeling of having no purpose but to somehow survive until death relieves me of that obligation.

Each day at work is measured in hours passing–to somehow fill the time until my first break, then slog 2 hours till lunch, then manage to stay busy enough till the afternoon break, which puts me close enough to the end of my shift to give faint hope of escape.  That game of monotony is still better than sitting at home trying to make sense of the life I was handed like a bag full of small parts that come with no explanation or instructions.

It helps a little to talk about it, so thanks for listening.

Posted April 28, 2018 by janathangrace in Personal

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A Quick Wave as We Pass   2 comments

Well, all my good intentions for Lent got squeezed out of my life by the bullies of work and school.  They crowded out any extra room, leaving no time, energy, or emotional space to reflect and sit with healing thoughts.  Kimberly’s work schedule and mine are not only constantly changing, but misaligned so that we only have time to connect at a basic level, but no time or energy to go deeper.  I came home night before last and told Kimberly, “I HATE this school!”  It is that time in the semester when everything is coming due and I have no extra time to complete the major projects.  Perhaps when I have a semester break I will have a chance to paint from the Lent pallet.

Posted March 29, 2018 by janathangrace in Personal

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Breaking Good   Leave a comment

Our closest relationships are the source of our greatest longing and deepest pain, so we armor-plate our souls against the danger. The only access is through the chinks in our armor where both arrows and salve can reach our core, and we martial all our defenses to these vulnerable spaces, blocking out both suffering and compassion. It is a terrifying dilemma.  For love to touch and heal our wounds, we must reveal them and face possible rejection.  The closer our relationship, the more power it carries to heal and to harm.

We all hide our so-called weaknesses with our individual schemes: humor or dominance, popularity or withdrawal. The better our defense mechanisms work, the safer we are from pain but the farther from deep relationship.  My major defense was over-achieving, stuffing the gaps of failure with redoubled efforts at success… until the whole structure imploded.  My greatest sacrifices and determination could not stop failure.  And out of that ruin, genuine life began to grow.  Those of us with broken defenses suffer most, but are closer to genuine connection and healing.

Kimberly tried to find safety by making everyone around her happy.  She was good at it.  They called her “Sunshine.”  But inside she was dying as she stifled her own feelings and views to make room for everyone else’s.  Both of us were too wounded to keep our shields up, but we found in each other a tenderness that invited deep connection.  Our shared brokenness created a level of intimacy that few experience.

Posted February 26, 2018 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Beauty from Ashes   5 comments

Eleven years ago on a forested mountain covered with treacherous ice, sparkling like slivers of glass in the sun, Kimberly said “Yes!” to me.  I slipped on her finger a ring that we designed together, two light blue opals, the color of her eyes, surrounding a teardrop diamond.  My wedding ring was a simple circle of beaten gold, showing the rough marks of the hammer blows that shaped it.

Our stories have always been forged by pain and sorrow, and we were embracing this together, the sadness and the beauty.  It is the seeping wounds of cut limbs bound together that creates the miracle of grafting, the agony and glory of each coursing through the veins of the other.  It is not just slow healing that we find, but a hybrid bouquet that far surpasses the beauty of either flowering branch on its own.

How perfect that our 11-year engagement anniversary should combine Valentine’s day and Ash Wednesday.  How apropos that I inadvertently wore black pants and a red shirt yesterday to school where I had my one class called “Spirit and Trauma.”  I came home to a living room full of lit candles, and Kimberly and I shared with one another our struggles and hopes, inviting God to pour in his grace.

Beginning with advent, our motto has been “find the beauty,” and for this season of Lent we have refined it to, “find the beauty in lament.”  This week we will remember the goodness that has come to our marriage through our brokenness.  “There is a crack in everything.  That’s where the light gets in.”  Our deep, genuine, close connection is the bond of shared sorrows through stumbling love.  This week we will name each facet of that unique beauty of brokenness to one another.

Posted February 15, 2018 by janathangrace in Personal

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